Friday, September 22, 2006

Senate Republicans/White House Agree on Torture Bill Compromise

Senate Republicans who had balked at the Bush administration's torture bill have finally given away, in a resolution that preserves much of what the administration was asking for. Despite the fact that this is being touted as some sort of compromise, it's clear the "dissident" Senators have largely given way:

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that Bush essentially got what he asked for in a different formulation that allows both sides to maintain that their concerns were addressed. "We kind of take the scenic route, but we get there," the official said.

I didn't find the Washington Post article to be as clear about what this bill authorizes as I would have liked. But Glenn Greenwald says it comes down to this:

This entire controversy arose because the U.S. has been using "interrogation techniques" -- such as induced hypothermia, "long standing," threats directed at detainees' families and waterboarding -- that are widely considered to be torture, and therefore in violation of the Geneva Conventions. The only thing the president wanted was to ensure that the CIA could continue to use these techniques, and that, unquestionably, is precisely the outcome of this "compromise."

If anything, these torture techniques will enjoy greater legal protection under the "compromise" legislation reached by the leaders of America's ruling party because a) authorization of these interrogation techniques will now be grounded in a statutory scheme duly enacted by Congress (rather than in the shadowy, secretive "interpretations" of the Geneva Conventions promulgated by the executive branch) and b) judicial review of any type (i.e., the ability to have courts adjudicate the compatibility of these practices with the mandates of the Conventions) will be barred entirely.

What I've read elsewhere essentially confirms that. In other words, Congress is putting it's legal imprimatur on the continuation fo acts of torture by the CIA. It appears the Bush administration surrendered on only one signficant issue:

About the only thing that Senators John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham had to show for their defiance was Mr. Bush’s agreement to drop his insistence on allowing prosecutors of suspected terrorists to introduce classified evidence kept secret from the defendant.

And even that may be in trouble: seemed like a significant concession — until Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, briefed reporters yesterday evening. He said that while the White House wants to honor this deal, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, still wants to permit secret evidence and should certainly have his say. To accept this spin requires believing that Mr. Hunter, who railroaded Mr. Bush’s original bill through his committee, is going to take any action not blessed by the White House.
Now, some of you might have been wondering exactly where the Democratic party as been on this. While they appear to have been more than willing to let the Republicans battle it out, reaping the supposed benefits of the intra-party strife, they've had pretty much nothing to say about the actual bill itself or the proposals of either the Bush administration or the hold-out Senators. The punditry have, in their collective wisdom, decided that to sit on the sidelines was the only wise course of action the Democrats could take:

McCain is now in a supreme position to really deliver big time for Republicans, and if he backs the compromise and President Bush 100% Democrats are going to get the screws put to them politically. And, if they make the very unwise decision to fight Bush and McCain on this interrogation issue, the entire election could change dramatically, and not in a direction that will make Democrats happy when they wake up on November 8th.
As you can imagine, liberal bloggers are taking a somewhat different view:

...the Democratic Party was nowhere in this debate. It contributed nothing. On the question of whether or not the United States will reconfigure itself as a nation which tortures its purported enemies and then grants itself absolution through adjectives -- "Aggressive interrogation techniques" -- the Democratic Party had…no opinion. On the issue of allowing a demonstrably incompetent president as many of the de facto powers of a despot that you could wedge into a bill without having the Constitution spontaneously combust in the Archives, well, the Democratic Party was more pissed off at Hugo Chavez.

The national Democratic Party is no longer worth the cement needed to sink it to the bottom of the sea.

Ouch. Want to guess which viewpoint I'm closer to?

Here's more about why McIntyre over at RCP thinks that it's a bad idea for the Dems to come out all against any torture bill:

Liberals will hate the analogy to "24," but at the end of the day large portions of the public see this debate as between those trying to give the America's Jack Bauers the legal protection to do what is necessary to keep Americans safe, while opponents play the role of bureaucratic suits and elitists more concerned about what the rest of the world might think. It is a straw man thrown out by critics of the President to say that this is about the "rule of law," because the entire process the White House has engaged in has been all about the "rule of law" and getting the people's representatives in the House and the Senate to pass a bill the President can sign into law.

Karen Tumulty of TIME said this morning on the Diane Rehm show that the Democrats made a "strategic decision" not to engage in a debate over torture because they knew it was "something that could hurt them very badly at the polls."

But is that true? Charles Pierce at Tapped doesn't think so:

This was as tactically idiotic as it was morally blind. On the subject of what kind of a nation we are, and to what extent we will live up to the best of our ideals, the Democratic Party was as mute and neutral as a stone. Human rights no longer have a viable political constituency in the United States of America. Be enough of a coward, though, and cable news will fit you for a toga.

"Tactically idiotic"? What's he talking about? Which is it? Do the American people "understand" the necessity of torture like McIntyre says, or as the NY Times says, do they expect the Democrats to take a stand against torture?

A growing number of Americans think torture and physical abuse are acceptable tactics in the war on terror. A newly released Associated Press poll finds that a shocking sixty-one percent of Americans think the use of torture can be justified to obtain intelligence from suspected terrorists. Assuming the polls and methodologies are comparable, that marks an increase over last year, when an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only thirty-five percent of Americans thought torture was a justifiable policy.

Well, that would seem to support the idea that Dems shouldn't want to put themselves out in the cold on this issue. But let's look at those numbers more closely:

"How often are any of the following justified when interrogating suspected terrorists?"


Often - 12%
Sometimes - 40%
Never - 48%

Now wait a December of last year, 48% of the people who responded to this poll said torture was never justified. 40% said it was only sometimes justified. To me that doesn't sound like a crowd that's up and decided that the President ought to have the authority to decide what is and isn't torture, let alone that they accept the current torture bill. And for those who answered "sometimes" what context? To what degree? What do they mean by "torture"? Is this the sort of evidence that leads the likes of McIntyre and Tumulty and other political pundits to declare that opposing this torture bill would be a bad move on the part of the Democrats? That 40% of Americans support it "sometimes"? That "only" 48% are opposed to it under all conditions?

Politics is not always about figuring out what your voters want and giving it to them. Sometimes it's about persuading them to want what's best for them, or to want the right thing. In other words, being a politician is-believe it or not-about being a leader, and not just the guy who sends home the pork. And it's clear to me that the national Democratic party has largely decided to abandon it's leadership role on this issue, preferring instead to take the easy way out by hoping that some Republicans would put their consciences over political expediency and fight this torture bill as the proxies of the 48% of Americans who don't think it's ever justified, many of whom probably voted Democrat. If anything explains why moderates, centrists, independents, whatever you want to call them, don't take the Democratic party seriuosly, this is why. Because the Democrats don't take their own party seriously.

Democrats yearn for the time when the American people took them seriously on issues of national security. Many of them seem to have decided that such a time will come again only as the result of a natural process mysterious and transparent to their view; or in other words, that it requires no action on their part. Either that or they have simply ceded the entire issue and everything related to it to Republicans, in the hopes of experiencing short-term political gain.

Here's the problem with that theory. Democrats cannot ever be taken seriously on national security, or any issue related to it such as the torture of terrorist suspects, until they have something to say about it, that something being more than "The Republicans are wrong about [fill in the blank]!" The Democratic leadership is apparently so afraid of short-term political consequences from taking a stance on difficult issues, that they refuse to recognize that this is costing them in the long-run. As long as they continue to back into a corner everytime the Republicans come out swinging on national security, terrorism, border security, etc., etc., Democrats will find themselves in 20 years longing for the time five decades in the past when people took them seriously on the issue.

Besides, I question the wisdom that this issue will hurt them in the short-term. Republicans have taken appealing to the "base" to an art form, and you can always count on them having a message for their Christian or anti-tax or whoever constituency somewhere in some legislation or speech or whatever on a pretty regular basis. So why can't Democrats reach out to their "base" on this issue, the Americans who utterly oppose the legalization of torture? Last time I checked, 48% of adult Americans is still a pretty substantial number of voters. Besides, read Pierce's post again for the demoralizing effect that the Democratic party's non-stance has had on it's most enthusiastic partisans...there are literally millions of people out there who are wondering the same thing he is: "Where is my party? Where are the people who stand for what I believe in?" Tell me that asking yourself that questions doesn't make you wonder why you should bother showing up to the polls on election day, even with all that's gone wrong.

Well, if you're like me and you're wondering how in the hell this sort of thing can become law, here's a ray of hope in Mary Lederman's otherwise depressing post:

If I'm right, and if this is enacted, the only hope would be the prospect of the Supreme Court holding that both the habeas cut-off, and the "no person may invoke Geneva" provision, are unconstitutional.

It's a little early yet and lawyers love to deliberate over things, so more legal analysis will be forthcoming. I'll link to the good stuff when I get a chance. But beyond that, our best bet to get this sort of thing undone is to hope that Democrats take the House and the Senate in the fall, and are up to forcing Bush to back down.


adam said...

Harry Reid said they would fillibuster the Bush plan, but I think they made an error in giving the heavy lifting here to these Republicans like McCain - because they believe it'd give them cover -since obviously, at the end of the day, they just capitulate to the Bush admin. So, in the end, we got screwed.

adam said...

Paul Krugman has a pretty good article out explaining why the Bush admin wants torture power so badly when it obviously produces bad intelligence. His thesis is that they've been all about eliminating all limits on presidential power and that's why something so defiant to our laws and international law would be appealing to them.